The snows of 2010 have gone. It was Tom Wisner’s last winter.
Tom Wisner — the Chesapeake Bay’s poet, singer, songwriter, and storyteller — passed away on April 2, in Calvert County, where he lived.
On the last day of January, when snow still covered the ground, he gave a remarkable concert in Easton, Maryland. Heavy snowfall had cancelled a performance in Annapolis the night before. He and his band of musicians were to have played at the Maritime Museum in Eastport. Now the roads had cleared enough for many of us to make the next night’s concert in the cozy Avalon Theater.
The place was packed.
It was wonderful to see him play that night, remarkable that he could still sing with deep resonance despite his lung cancer. He sang the familiar tunes, the ones that have for many of us become old standbys. While his voice sounded strong, his memory at times played tricks. He forgot words, stanzas. This made him laugh. The fact that his words could now fly away like wild birds struck him as amusing.
His memory was uneven, but his warmth remained. Hearing so many of his songs reminded us how much of himself he poured into his personal celebration of the Chesapeake Bay. He always came back to the water, nature’s blood. Sometime long ago, perhaps on his mother’s family farm, perhaps in streams near the Anacostia where he grew up, he formed a bond with nature. That bond became a love affair with the Chesapeake Bay, with working the water, with all the creatures that crawl, swim, or fly there.
Sitting in the Avalon Theater were people who have labored a long time on behalf of the Bay. A family of sorts, all of us drawn to this body of water. One of them, sitting in blue jeans a couple rows ahead of me, looked familiar. It turned out to be Governor Martin O’Malley. Tom called the governor on stage to introduce a song they’d collaborated on, about Maryland revolutionary war soldiers who made a desperate stand against the British in New York. Maryland’s Old Line. Then Tom and his friends played the song, a tune that seems destined to be sung by school children for years to come.
After the night’s performance I waited for the crowd of fans to drift away, then I walked on stage. Tom’s wheelchair faced the stage exit. He was making slow progress, a transparent loop around his face bringing oxygen from a steel tank. He seemed breathless. I thanked him for the concert. For his years of music. For everything. He nodded. We have to find a way, he said, to save the river. I believe he meant the Patuxent, but of course he could have meant any and all of the Bay’s rivers. For him they were all treasures.
Tom Wisner is gone now, just as the season turns and the tundra swan leave for the far north. This year he has gone with them. He’s left behind his songs, his stories. And that obsession with the Bay that somehow still burns.
You can hear Tom Wisner’s songs and stories on his last CD, Follow on the Water, available from a center that he helped to found, Chestory: the Center for the Chesapeake Story. To hear one of his most well-known songs, “Chesapeake Born,” online, visit the Smithsonian Folkways site at http://bit.ly/99X6dm.